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Ontario’s mask mandate extension in high-risk settings being met with mixed reactions

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The Ontario government’s decision to extend its remaining mask mandate in high-risk settings until at least June 11 was met with mixed reactions over the weekend, with some saying the move doesn’t go far enough to blunt the effects of COVID-19.

The rule requiring masks in health-care settings, long-term care homes, shelters and public transit was set to expire on April 27, but the government announced on Friday it would be extended as the province deals with a sixth wave of COVID-19 infections.

Andrew Williams, president and CEO of Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance, said his organization “fully” supports the move, even as his hospital system — and several others in Ontario — already planned to continue enforcing mask-wearing.

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“We were pleased to see that the government has made the announcement, which really helped our messaging with our community as we continue to talk about the importance of doing all the little things right, including wearing a mask coming into settings like ours,” he said.

Across the four hospitals the Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance oversees in southwestern Ontario, Williams said there were about 100 staff off on Friday because they were sick with COVID-19, awaiting their COVID-19 test results, or had a high-risk exposure.

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He said COVID-19 related staff absences have led the St. Marys Memorial Hospital emergency department to be closed overnight until at least May 2, with patients being redirected to other emergency departments in the area.

“So it’s a significant issue,” Williams said.

“We’re seeing impacts on services and a lot of organizations are, and (that’s) another reason why doing the things right like masking is so important for us.”

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, said her association was calling for the province’s mask mandate to be kept in all indoor settings to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases.

She said it was “irresponsible” for the province to lift mask mandates in most indoor spaces — including schools and retail stores — last month. She said that at the very least, she’d like to see mask requirements kept indefinitely in high-risk settings until public health indicators have “significantly” improved.

“Let me be clear what we mean as nurses by improved — it means hospitalizations are not rising, which they are, it means surgeries are not being postponed and cancelled, which they are, it means staff are not getting sicker and sicker, which they are,” Grinspun said.

“And it means emergency rooms are not closing because they cannot attend to people because they have no staffing, which they are closing.”

The province has said the hospital system’s capacity to care for patients remains high, so there’s no need to bring back a broader mandate. A spokeswoman for the minister of health did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.

Toronto resident Maria Elizondo, who commutes to work five days a week, said many of her fellow transit-riders have already ditched their masks. She added that those people typically don’t respect social distancing on trains or buses either.

It’s left her questioning the usefulness of extending the mandate.

“I mean, in theory, it’s great, but in practice, it’s worthless, because it’s not being enforced,” she said.

“People don’t wear masks and you feel uncomfortable.”

Tina McCulloch, who is now riding the TTC three or four times a week since her office in Toronto recently reopened, said she thinks extending the mask mandate for high-risk settings is “excellent and necessary” but believes there shouldn’t be an “arbitrary date” to lift it.

“When we stop wearing masks should be based on case counts (and) hospital admissions and not the calendar,” she said.

However, McCulloch said she typically feels safe taking public transit, as she wear a high-quality N95 mask and moves away if another passenger is unmasked or coughing.

“Having said that, last week when I was on a packed subway train with rowdy, unmasked Raptors fans, I felt very uncomfortable,” she added.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 24, 2022.

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